Would you like to strengthen your capacity to learn? How about your memory retention, gaining the ability to recall items faster, kind of like a mental filing system ready to unleash your knowledge whenever called upon? Increasing knowledge is the name of the game these days in all aspects of your life, and there's an easy, quick way to learn—well, how to learn!
In this article, we'll be showing you specific things you can do and should do to strengthen your brainpower—starting today. It's very useful to know how an internal combustion engine works, but you don't need to know that in order to drive a car. So let's get behind the wheel right now and hit the road.
To a surprising extent, this will be an experience of “back to the future.” When you were very young, literally everything you did was a learning experience. Every time you tried to say a new word or to take another step, you were opening new pathways and creating new connections in your brain. But as you get older, instead of creating new routes, you tend to stay in the ones that are already well worn. What used to be new pathways have now turned into ruts. And if there’s one thing that’s not good for keeping your brain in shape, it’s keeping it in a rut.
To see what can be done about this, we'll introduce a very useful and important word—mindfulness, which means being fully aware of what you're doing in the moment that you're doing it. When you were a child and it was time to brush your teeth in the morning, you were mindfully aware of that action. You focused on putting the toothpaste on the brush, because you had to focus in order to do it correctly. Brushing your teeth was a novel experience for the simple reason that you hadn't been doing it very long.
Well, contrast that with the act of brushing your teeth at this point in your life—or with any action that you've done ten thousand times over the years. It's not likely that your attention is fully engaged when you put the toothpaste on the brush. In fact, the chances are your thoughts are a thousand miles away. Or, here's an even more disturbing possibility. Maybe you're not having any thoughts at all. Maybe your brain is engaged only on a very minimal level, like a really low pilot light in a stove. There are lots of problems with this, and one of them is the way you can get used to that level of functioning. If your day is filled with a series of routines that can happen on autopilot, you're going to sail along on autopilot unless you make a conscious decision to do something else. And unless you do make that conscious decision, you'll eventually find that the autopilot is not very easy to turn off.
Mindfulness is the antidote to this, and mindfulness can be created in a few different ways. The first way is by introducing new experiences and endeavors into your daily life—things that you actually can't do on autopilot. Most of the ideas that we'll be offering in this article fall into that category. But it's not really possible to be doing new things all the time—which suggests another form of mindfulness. This is a matter of becoming more fully engaged with even the routine tasks that you do every day. We're not saying you can get excited about brushing your teeth, but you can make a bit of an effort not to zone out quite so easily. Just focus your attention a little more consciously. Just have a bit more awareness of what you're doing, even if it doesn't seem like that awareness is necessary.
So becoming more mindful is the first thing you can do starting right now to benefit your brain. Once you get started with this, you'll be amazed at the difference it can make in your everyday life. Once you become mindful of where you put your keys, for instance, you won't lose your keys so often. As a result, you won't have to waste a lot of time looking for your keys. You also won't have to deal with the unpleasant suspicion that your brainpower is diminishing because you're losing things all the time.
As a way of getting started with this, try making a list of six or seven mindless actions that you do every day. Putting down your keys could certainly be one of them. Making the morning coffee might be another. Maybe you watch the same TV news show every evening or read the sections of the newspaper in exactly the same order. What we're suggesting now is not that you should change those things. On the contrary, continue to do them, but do them with more conscious awareness. Do them mindfully instead of mindlessly.
As you're making this list, here's something you should definitely be mindful of. There are probably some activities that you do so automatically that you're not even aware of them and, for most people, these are not usually beneficial activities. For example, people who smoke a pack a day aren't usually aware of the fact that they light up a cigarette 20 times. The only way they know that is when they see that they need to buy a new pack. Actually lighting the cigarettes takes place completely outside their conscious awareness. It's the same with people who snack a lot between meals. Their attention may be somewhere else, or it may be nowhere, but it definitely isn't on the fact that they're eating potato chips.
Now here's the good news. Mindfulness is one of the best ways not only for increasing your brain power, but also for breaking destructive habits that have become automatic behaviors. If you want to quit smoking, you don't necessarily have to go cold turkey right way. You can give yourself permission to keep smoking, but make a conscious decision to be mindful every time you light up a cigarette. This really works and, on a physical level, ending habits like smoking and overeating will benefit your brain and your body as a whole.
So mindfulness is the first step you can take toward increased brain power. It may also be the most important step. So, be more mindful of everything in your life, including your decision to be more mindful. Start right now because in the rest of this article we're going to give you several more ways to increase your brain power.
One of the best ways to improve brain function doesn't directly involve the brain at all. It involves the feet. Running, walking, or some other form of aerobic exercise is absolutely essential for optimal brain power. As we age, our brain cells—called neurons—lose their interconnections. These interconnections, or synapses, are essential to thought. But there's now strong evidence that exercise can not only head off mental decline, but can even restore lost brain function. We can put this very simply—fit people have sharper brains compared with people who are not fit. But even people who are out of shape can make changes that benefit their brains. There's no question that exercise makes you smarter, and it does so at all stages of life.
Exercise used to be a natural part of life, but today we have to consciously and mindfully build it into the daily routine. Incredibly enough, even walking is now considered a form of exercise. It used to just be the way to get from one place to another.
As it happens, walking is especially good for your brain, because it increases blood circulation and the oxygen and glucose that reach your brain. Walking is not strenuous, so your leg muscles don’t take up extra oxygen and glucose as they do during other forms of exercise. As you walk, you effectively oxygenate your brain. Maybe this is why walking can “clear your head” and help you to think better.
All this is well documented by research. At the University of Illinois, a study was done on a group of more than 200 men and women in their early 60s. They were basically healthy, but they were also classified as sedentary individuals. They hadn't been involved in any physical exercise for at least five years, and for most of them it was much longer. Half of the subjects took long walks around the university three times a week, while the other half did light toning and stretching exercises. After six months, the walkers improved significantly in mental tests, as well as being more physically fit. An improvement of only 5-7% in cardio-respiratory fitness led to an improvement of up to 15% in mental tests. But the non-walkers, despite the fact that they had done some exercise, did not gain any benefits for their brains.
And just as you can build brain power through your feet, you can also do it through your stomach. For example, research in both animals and humans indicates that a calorie-restricted diet is helpful for both overall health and brain function. Eating wisely controls weight and decreases risk for heart disease, cancer, and stroke. It also triggers mechanisms to increase the production of nerve growth factors, which are essential to brain function.
What you eat is just as important as how much you eat. That's why researchers use the acronym CRON—for "calorie restriction with optimal nutrition." If you take in fewer calories, you must make all of those calories count. For example, certain fatty acids found in fish also make up a large portion of the gray matter of the brain. Research has shown that diets rich in fatty acids can help promote emotional balance and cognitive function, possibly because they're a main component of the brain's synaptic structures. In a similar way, studies show that fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of developing cognitive impairment.
This is because so-called free radicals play a major role in the deterioration of the brain with age. When a cell converts oxygen into energy, tiny molecules called free radicals are made. Produced in normal amounts, free radicals rid the body of harmful toxins. But when they're produced in larger, toxic amounts, free radicals can cause cell death and tissue damage. Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and beta carotene inhibit the production of free radicals—and the best natural sources for all of these are in fruits and vegetables.
If you've already done some reading on brain function, you probably know that fish oils and fruits and vegetables can be good for you. But there's an excellent chance that you're not aware of the single most important dietary factor for peak brain function—water. The fact is the human brain—like the human body as a whole—is more than 70 percent water. When a sufficient volume of water is not brought into the body, the process of dehydration begins, and this is potentially very damaging to good brain function. Most people don't drink enough water, and this is especially true as we get older. In fact, dehydration is often the underlying cause of symptoms of dementia in elderly people. It may seem like an excessive amount, but adults should drink eight 10-ounce glasses of water every day, and that water should not include artificial sweeteners, sugar, caffeine, or alcohol.
Physically helping your brain through exercise is at one end of a spectrum, but there's another side of this coin. Sleep is just as important as exercise. A study at Harvard Medical School looked at the conditions under which people come up with creative solutions to math problems. It was found that a good night's rest doubled participants' chances of finding a solution to a problem the next day. The sleeping brain, it seems, is vastly more capable of synthesizing complex information. But you don't have to be a mathematician in order to need the right amount of sleep. Many people don't realize that sleep is more than just resting. Good sleep leads to deep, regular breathing, and this allows the blood to receive generous amounts of oxygen from the lungs. If your blood isn't getting enough oxygen, you're going to have problems both physically and mentally. During sleep the volume of blood circulating through the brain is actually greater than during the waking hours. The sleeping brain is actually just as active as the waking brain —and having an active brain is always a good thing. Conversely, nothing is more destructive to brain health than lack of sleep. So keep in mind that sleep and exercise are two sides of the same coin. If you get enough exercise, you're more likely to sleep better, and if you get enough sleep, you'll feel more like exercising. Both those activities will strengthen your brain.
Mindfulness, sleep, exercise, and diet—four steps you can take right now to benefit your brain. And here's a fifth: Do whatever you can to reduce stress in all areas of your life.
You may have noticed that when you're under acute stress you have a harder time remembering things. It's a well-documented fact that stress can disturb cognitive processes such as learning and memory. The hippocampus, for example, which is the brain's primary center of memory formation, can be seriously debilitated by chronic stress. This happens all the time. You're running out the door, and you can't find your keys. Or you're having a conversation with a potentially important new client, and you suddenly can't remember the client's name. Why? Because you're stressed out about how important she is. It's the fight or flight response. When you're nervous, your body gears up to take physical action, and this has a negative impact on your mental functioning. The impact can be short term if the stress is short term, as when you're talking to the new client—but if the stress is continuous and chronic, the effects can become ingrained. So try to relax. Admittedly, it's not always easy, but there are many things you can do toward calming yourself down. Yoga and meditation are both excellent. Look into both of these if you're living a stressful life and you're not sure how to calm down.
Now, so far we’ve seen five important steps you can take to optimizing brain function, but now we’re going to explore some ideas for improving brain function by actually using your brain. This will be very beneficial because the saying “use it or lose it” is definitely true where the brain is concerned.
Like it or not, the human brain starts slowing down at about the age of 30. At one time, it seemed like nothing could be done about this, but new research shows you can train your mind to work faster and better, and you can do this at any age. With the right tools, you can recondition your brain to work as it did when you were younger. What's needed is a clearly defined regimen of brain exercise. Just as you can plan to walk or run a certain number of miles every week, you can also commit to workouts for your brain in the same period of time. The key finding in modern brain research is that the brain at any age is highly adaptable. It's "plastic," as neurologists put it. If you ask your brain to learn, it will learn. And you can speed up the process.
Introducing new forms of mental activity can strengthen the brain—such as doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, learning a new language, or engaging in any form of new activity for you. If you have been doing puzzles every morning for your whole life, there probably is not much benefit in doing them now. That's especially true if doing puzzles has become a habitual behavior in which you're zoned out while you're doing them. So here's what we urge you to do: Whether it's crossword puzzles or Sudoku or chess or bridge, challenge your mind to try something different. So again, find something that takes your brain in a new direction, and then find ways to make it as enjoyable as you can.
Our final point is a bit more philosophical. As we mentioned, brain functions start to slow down at around the age of 30. But that's only part of the story. Throughout the body, all our systems lose approximately 1 percent of their energy every year starting in our early 20s. Now the question is—so what? Does that mean you have to resign yourself to slowly becoming a vegetable? Absolutely not! The body and the brain are marvelously designed to compensate for the process of change. What you may lose in the speed of your thoughts, you can more than make up for with your wisdom. You may not be able to process information as fast, but you can definitely process it more efficiently. In short, don't give up on yourself, and don't feel sorry for yourself just because you're changing. You can control that change in many different ways. You can slow it down by taking the positive steps we've mentioned. So enjoy the realization that your destiny is in your own hands, and then put that realization into action right now.